'It's just overwhelming': Yukoners mourn discovery of remains at B.C. residential school site

The recent discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site in B.C. has some Yukoners calling for searches to be done at other sites across Canada.

Some call for full investigation of former residential school sites across Canada

Thousands of people gathered in downtown Whitehorse on Monday afternoon, after preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School uncovered the remains of 215 children. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Mary Caesar says she's been doing some painting and sewing, and trying to eat well and sleep, as she grapples with a lot of traumatic memories.

The Yukon woman — a former residential school student — is reflecting on the reported discovery of children's remains on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

"I'm just feeling just a lot of emotions right now. Yeah, I'm just feeling like, sadness, grief, anger, loneliness," she said, from her home in Watson Lake, Yukon. 

"It's just overwhelming."

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said last Thursday that preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School uncovered the remains of 215 children.

Caesar was four years old when she was first sent to the Lower Post residential school in northern B.C. She was there for four years and suffered physical and sexual abuse.

The discovery in Kamloops has shocked her, she said, though she believes there is more to be discovered in places across Canada — including Lower Post. She's joining her voice to those calling for searches to be done at residential school sites across Canada.

A vigil outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse on Monday. Hundreds of pairs of childrens' shoes have been left in front of the Catholic church. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Caesar says the discovery in B.C. has opened a "new chapter," when it comes to addressing the legacy of residential schools. 

"The Canadian government, and the churches, they have to be held accountable for their crimes. It's got to be brought up at the United Nations. That's what I believe," she said. 

"It's genocide, you know, that's what it is … the Canadian government, they got to be responsible. And it's time to face the truth now."

Flags at half-mast for 215 hours

In Whitehorse on Monday, all flags on government buildings were flying at half-mast and would remain so for 215 hours, "to honour those who suffered trauma and harm along with their families and communities who are mourning," according to a statement from Premier Sandy Silver. 

"We stand in support for the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and all Indigenous communities as they continue to search for and uncover evidence of the harms committed against them by governments and churches throughout Canada," Silver's statement reads.

The Yukon government says flags on government buildings will be flown at half-mast for 215 hours. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

Lynda Dickson, chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, also issued a statement on Monday, saying the discovery in Kamloops "has opened a big wound for everybody."

Carcross was home to the Choutla residential school and Dickson said the pain caused by that institution is still felt in her community. The First Nation is also calling for more investigation of residential school sites.

"We need to get to the bottom of it, put people to rest and bring people home, if that's what's needed. We need closure to help us cope," Dickson's statement reads.

Members of Yukon's legislative assembly also made statements on Monday, the last day of the spring sitting.

"This disturbing discovery [in Kamloops] likely won't be the last discovery of this kind in Canada, and reminds us of the terrible toll that residential school took on our Indigenous communities," said Speaker Jeremy Harper.

"This is something that should never be repeated and never be forgotten." 

Childrens' shoes were also left outside the catholic church in Haines Junction, Yukon, on Monday. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

MLA Geraldine Van Bibber echoed Harper's comments.

"There is not one part of our country Canada that has not been affected by the residential school system," Van Bibber said.

"We cannot hide this history and we should never gloss over the horrors that happened in them."

'Tough conversations'

Also in Whitehorse, a vigil was held outside the local Catholic church, the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Hundreds of pairs of childrens' shoes sat on the church steps.

On Monday afternoon, thousands gathered at the church to begin a march through the downtown to the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre. Many participants wore orange, in honour of residential school victims.

Chad Girardin sat outside the church on Monday with his two young children. He sang and played a moosehide drum.

He said it was important for him to be there, and ensure that his own children know some of what happened. 

"It's super-important to have those tough conversations with our children — in an age-appropriate way, of course," he said.

"What they know is a lot of children passed away at these schools and some of the people at these schools were bad. And that [children] weren't given proper care, i.e., shoes and toys and such, so we bring some for them here."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health services are available to Yukoners both in Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.

With files from Leonard Linklater, Philippe Morin and Julien Gignac